Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) scored its worst-ever results in elections in the south-western states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party was in crisis mode on Monday after suffering heavy losses in two regional polls, seen as a rebuke of its pandemic management six months before a general election.
Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) scored its worst-ever results in elections in the south-western states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, according to estimates from public broadcasters.
Sunday's rout raised questions about the conservatives' chances in the September 26 general election, when Germans will choose a successor to outgoing leader Merkel.
"It can't go on like this," said Der Spiegel weekly, saying Merkel's house was "on fire."
The rout was blamed on growing public anger over a sluggish vaccine rollout, a delayed start to mass rapid testing and higher infection numbers despite months of shutdowns.
In the days leading up to the regional votes, Merkel's CDU and its CSU Bavarian sister party were also rocked by revelations of lawmakers apparently profiting from deals to procure face masks in the early days of the pandemic.
Three conservative MPs have since resigned, and the CDU/CSU alliance has forced all its lawmakers to declare any financial gain from the coronavirus crisis, vowing "zero tolerance."
CSU secretary general Markus Blume called Sunday's drubbing a "wake-up call" for the CDU/CSU.
If Germany's largest bloc wants to stay in power when Merkel bows out after 16 years, it urgently needs to "win back trust," he said.
"We need clear decisions and a clear course in the fight against the coronavirus," he added.
The first order of business should be to decide the bloc's candidate for chancellor, media outlet Spiegel said.
New CDU chief Armin Laschet is the obvious choice, but he lacks broad support.
Critics say that he has failed to carve out a political profile beyond representing continuity in the post-Merkel era.
Laschet needs to "free himself from Merkel's shadow" and "say what the party stands for," Andreas Roedder, a historian at Mainz university and a CDU member, told the Bild daily.
Opinion polls suggest Germans would prefer to see popular Bavarian premier and CSU leader Markus Soeder in the top job, but he has yet to declare a willingness to run.
If Soeder genuinely has chancellor ambitions, "he must strike now," said Handelsblatt financial daily.
Merkel's CDU garnered just 24% of the vote in the wealthy state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, down from 27% five years ago, estimates showed.
The state is an outlier in Germany because it has been run by a premier from the Green party for over a decade, Winfried Kretschmann.
Kretschmann led the left-leaning ecologists to a record result of more than 32%.
The 72-year-old could now opt to continue the current coalition with the CDU or build an alliance with the centre-left SPD and the pro-business FDP.
His choice will be closely watched as it could serve as a blueprint for the next national government.
Support for the Greens has risen in recent years on growing concern about climate change, and they could emerge as kingmakers in September's election.
In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, popular state premier Malu Dreyer powered the SPD to another victory with a score of around 36%.
The CDU slumped to around 26%, down from almost 32% in 2016.
Dreyer is expected to maintain her "traffic light" coalition with the Greens and the FDP, named after the parties' colours.
The conservatives' woes come as Germany braces for a third Covid-19 wave, even while proceeding with a gradual reopening of schools and non-essential shops.
Latest forecasts by the country's Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases predict that by mid-April, new infections could surpass the peak seen in December, when some 30,000 cases were reported a day.
Merkel and the premiers of Germany's 16 federal states will discuss the next steps in the pandemic fight on March 22.